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The Prodigal Son

When I was a toddler my favorite story was The Three Bears. Whenever my mother asked me what story I wanted to hear I always said, “The Three Bears.” All my aunts told me The Three Bears until they were blue in the face. Baby sitters moaned and groaned, looked at me, and said, “Phillip! Not again!” But I liked it and even though I knew it by heart I wanted to hear them tell it to me one more time. With vocal inflections.

Today we heard the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is sort of like a biblical, “Three Bears.” We’ve heard it over and over again to the point where we could almost recite the dialog by heart. With vocal inflections. The younger son demands the inheritance from the father, goes away, blows the money doing things he shouldn’t be doing, and is forced to go back home hoping for food and shelter. The father forgives the son and throws a party. But when the older son is resentful the father tells him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

It is arguably the best known of Jesus parables. But sometimes we preachers who have been in the ministry awhile can open up their Celebrates for the upcoming Sunday and react like my aunts and babysitters, “Noooo. Not this AGAIN!!” That was my first reaction this past Monday when Heather gave me the Celebrate readings for today. I thought, “What can I possibly say about this that I have not said before.” But two things happened. First, I remembered that people actually like to hear this story again and again and even the same sermon points again and again. But, second, my sermon prep unearthed a new thought for me … one which I will share with you.

This is Lent. Is it possible to consider the Prodigal Son through a Lenten lens? By that I mean, is it possible for us to allow this story to teach us something about how we understand the cross? Usually we focus on the younger son … the prodigal one. We focus on how he completely messed up his own life and repented, asking for mercy from his father. Actually, we’re never sure if the prodigal son is really repentant or is simply scheming to get not only the inheritance (which he blew) but food and lodging for the forseeable future, not to mention a welcome home party with some bling and a nice prime rib.

But I think the other son – the elder brother – might lead us to some Lenten thinking about what the cross means to us. He’s the righteous one who always kept his nose to the grindstone and did everything right. If anyone deserve a ring and the fatted calf, it would be he. He’s earned it. But when the father’s grace goes to the sinner, the elder brother is resentful. He would rather see the prodigal son punished.

Here’s where the cross comes in. As Christianity evolved in its early years, a theory of the cross developed which understood the cross as punishment for sin. St. Anselm proposed this view which was later developed by Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and became the prominent view in western thinking. Here’s Anselm’s reasoning: Because God is just, God must punish human sin. But because God is loving God doesn’t want to punish humanity, let alone condemn us to hell. This is where Jesus comes in. Because Jesus is human, he can represent us before God and so God can punish Jesus instead of us. And because Jesus is God, his sacrifice is an equal exchange for all the sins we will ever commit. This is reflected in the way we talk sometimes when we say things like, “Jesus paid the price for my sins.” The father punished the son instead of punishing us.

This way of thinking – that the whole world is a ledger in which bad deeds must be offset by penalties – was the older brother’s point of view. Things need to be fair. Justice requires retribution. You do the crime you do the time! This is the way we sometimes think of the cross. It is God’s way of evening the score. A price must be paid, so Jesus pays it.

But that’s not the story this parable presents. What does the father do? He’s standing on the porch. Suddenly he sees a figure down at the end of the lane. He squints. Shields his eyes with his hand and does a double take. It can’t be. But it is. It is his long lost son. Without asking him if he was sorry for what he did, without giving him a lecture, without even asking if he wanted to come home, the father goes running to him with open arms, welcomes him home, orders up a ring, a robe, and the fatted calf to be brought forth for one grand warm welcome-home party. The story is one of utter and complete mercy, compassion, forgiveness and grace.

There is no judgment. There is no punishment. There is no divine evening of the score. The father does not need to punish his own son. There are other ways in which we can understand the cross, but having a father torture and kill his son as a substitute for torturing and killing you and me is not one of them.

The Bible doesn’t put a title on this parable. “The Prodigal Son” is a heading we made up. Maybe it should be “The Parable of the Gracious Father.” And maybe one of the reasons people like to hear it again and again is that it resonates with things which happen in their own lives, or maybe inspires them to make their own lives reflect the values in this story.

Here’s another story which echoes this:

“As she grew older her teenage daughter became increasingly rebellious. It culminated late one night when the police arrested her daughter for drunk driving. Mom had to go to the police station to pick her up. They didn’t speak until the next afternoon. Mom broke the tension by giving her a small gift-wrapped box. Her daughter nonchalantly opened it and found a little rock inside. She rolled her eyes and said, “Cute, Mom, what’s this for?” “Read the card,” mom said. Her daughter took the card out of the envelope and read it. Tears started to trickle down her cheeks. She got up and lovingly hugged her mom as the card fell to the floor. On the card were these words: “This rock is more than 200 million years old. That is how long it will take before I give up on you.”

The mother’s love was not conditional. It did not say, “I will love you if…” It said, “I will love you no matter what.”

As we continue our Lenten journey toward Good Friday, toward the cross, let’s find ways to not think of it as punishment or payment, but to consider it in the light of love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Let’s find ways to make that story our own story in the ways we live out our lives from day to day. Someone has said that grace is getting what you do not deserve and mercy is not getting what you do deserve.

Ernest Hemingway wrote a poignant short story called “The Capital of the World.” In it he tells about a Spanish father who wants to reconcile with his son who has run away to Madrid. In order to locate the boy the father takes out this ad in the Madrid newspaper; “Paco, meet me at the Hotel Montana at noon on Tuesday. All is forgiven. Love, Papa.” Paco is a common name in Spain, and when the father goes to the square he finds 800 young men named Paco waiting for their fathers.

Our father waits for us, too. All is forgiven. It’s time to go home.

Text: Luke 15: 1-32

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